Nice work, Mumford & Sons. You have secured your place as one of those bands people dislike primarily for being popular and successful—the music a secondary factor. Other members of the club are Kings of Leon, Keane, Coldplay and so on... It's a sizeable pack. Not content with rehashing words from Hilary Mantel, Marcus Mumford has also been taking pages direct from Chris Martin's manuscript of life. He's set himself up with the A-list actress wife, the millions of international record sales, the prime time TV slots, and high-profile White House performances. All in all, it's going well. So why change anything?
Mumford's ethos seems to be; if it's not broke, don't risk any improvements. In fact, go one step further and write a computer programme to automate songs based on one hurtling country hook. But why should we be so caught up on innovation? Surely the sane thing to do when following a good debut is to ensure it's at least equally good. Nothing ventured, and nothing gained, sure—but that also means nothing's been taken away. Mumford & Sons are extremely good at serving the same Madeira sponge over and over, changing the icing each time. The base isn't a bad one, in fact it's good. But there's only so many tweaks that can be made to fill an album. Sure, Uri Gellar is pretty good at bending a spoon, but once you've seen it once you've seen it forever.
It was always going to be hard to complete a follow up the Mercury-nominated debut, Sigh No More, without drawing comparisons or finger pointing surrounding the sophomore slump. Turns out, comparisons are easily made as this could well have been the same album, B-side.
Like Hollister to California prep, Mumford & Sons are the stylised representation of a folk aesthetic, bloated and packaged for those who don't like folk music. Babel is safe, Mumford & Sons know their niche and, so far, not many have come close to impersonating it. It's a record made for explosive sing-alongs and drunken stupor. Translating lessons from the Kristen Stewart guide to acting for use in a musical context, it's the same thing over and over. This is easily acknowledged, but still loved in pop culture.
Title track 'Babel's thundering opening is extremely similar to Sigh's 'Roll Away Your Stone'. Like a punch in the gut, cathartic screams and zealous strumming defines the label's brief for this record as "The same, but more. And louder." Mumford roars for emotional walls to be torn down, and we wish he would pound them himself. In this record, we want to get to know Mumford better, but he's keeping us at arms length, giving the impression of exposure with none of the liability.
Galloping mandolin, soft vocals, banjos, elasticised drops after lowly hooks, the final release of emotion—it's a formula Pythagoras would be proud of. 'I Will Wait' is the obvious choice for a single, implementing the procedure perfectly, dousing hyped hoedowns with Eagles-like harmonies. They're a band looking ahead to filling arenas instead of pubs, and to emerge from festival tents to the main outdoor stages. It's cathartic anthems like this that will prove to be the biggest crowd pleasers and provide just the right skyrocketing tempo for the boozers.
One difference to Sigh No More is that there's a darker quality to Mumford's voice. He seems enraged. Venomous echoes of "Let's live while we are young/ while we are young" on 'Whispers in the Dark' seem more of a threat than an emotive plea, while 'Broken Crown's' crawling vocals include the trademark emphasised 'fuck'. "I took the road and I fucked it all away/now in this twilight, how dare you speak of grace?" spits Mumford, embellishing the darker tones. Well darker in terms of them throwing a shitload of black paint on what was already there.
"I feel numb beneath your tongue/ shake my ash toward the wind/lord forget my sins" he cries on 'Lovers Eyes', bringing the religious tones present throughout Babel to a climax. A cappella harmonies of redemption again merge into the cathartic throws of "Take my hand!" with the urgency of someone falling off a building. Desperate "Aaaahhhs" dive in over the stock composition they've probably been sprinkling throughout the record to see if we'd notice. Continuity—you can't argue it's not here. The only subtle hints we get of a new direction belong on 'Below my feet' and 'Hopeless Wanderer', with an electric guitar sashaying discreetly over formula initialisation 9 and 11.
But there's still the feeling of restraint, don't mess it up, keep the guitar low. There's no extreme Muse-like risk-taking on the cards for Mumford & Sons just yet. "This ain't no sham/I am what I am" spews Mumford on 'Not With Haste'. His resentful, lax tones say it all. That's cool, but we're ready for the second track now.